Artist Helen Zughaib Wants to Foster Dialogue Between People…and Cats
Helen Zughaib offers me baklava soon after I enter her Foggy Bottom studio. “It’s not the real thing,” she apologizes. “It’s Greek, so it’s made with honey instead of simple syrup. We Arabs are sticklers about stuff like that,” she laughs.
Zughaib’s Arab heritage (her father is Lebanese, her mother American) informs not only her taste in sweets, but her art as well. The painter—who fled Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, finished high school in Paris, and moved to the United States to study for her BFA at Syracuse University—creates vibrant paintings in ink and gouache, an opaque watercolor. Their subjects range from her grandfather planting olive trees in Lebanon to women wearing the abaya (the robe-like garment favored by some Muslim women). One of her works, “Another Wall,” is included in a show opening today at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery, “Breaching the Wall.” The exhibit, which runs through June 24, features 11 artists’ works that respond to the barrier that has divided Israel from the West Bank since construction began in 2002—through sculpture, paintings, photographs, and film.
Though Zughaib takes on politically charged topics in her paintings, “being diplomatic is my stance,” she says. She’s more interested in helping people think differently about the Arab world than lecturing to them about what they’re not getting right. Sometimes the result is playful, such as in her “Abaya Series.” Zughaib has created a number of whimsical portraits of abaya-sporting women in the style of well-known Western painters, such as Klimt, Mondrian, and Picasso. “I wanted to mix the West and East together and turn the Western idea of the abaya as oppressive on its head,” she says. “Wearing it is a tradition in the Middle East, and it’s almost always a choice. And speaking of oppression, you have Western women plucking, pulling, adjusting, and cramming themselves into tight jeans—for men!”
Zughaib's artistic goal is to bring about cultural understanding and unity—a mission so important she jokingly applies it to her cats Stumpy (who was born with only a stump of a tail) and Clumpy. “I got them two months apart to specifically encourage unity between them,” she says, speaking like an experienced cat owner, who knows that introducing a new kitty to the mix can wreak havoc on a household. “Though Stumpy is King Kitty for sure, they generally co-exist peacefully.”
Zughaib’s work has gained her supporters among everyday citizens and heads of state alike. In 2009, President Obama gave a painting of Zughaib’s titled "Midnight Prayers" to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, and the following year Hillary Clinton presented Zughaib's rendition of the Washington monument to King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Former Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri gifted George W. Bush with her painting "Reconciliation" in 2007. “It’s in the White House somewhere,” Zughaib says.
Zughaib’s "Another Wall" comprises 20 conjoining panels that are meant to symbolize bricks. She painted each to resemble a pattern of traditional Palestinian embroidery, patterns that are particular to individual villages—many of which no longer exist. “Textiles are some of the last remnants of these villages,” says Dagmar Painter, curator of the exhibit. “Helen has turned this sad subject into a memorial and monument to the women embroiderers.”
“Breaching the Wall” also includes a 60-foot long rope by textile artist Mary Tuma. Made from women’s dresses and men’s scarves, it signifies a means by which two Palestinians, separated by the barrier after it cut through their village, can climb up and meet one
another. And designer and artist Rajie Cook offers a hollowed-out tree-trunk sculpture with carved pieces of wood inside that encircle a nest holding a doll’s head—representing a Palestinian village encircled by Israeli settlements.
An opening reception for “Breaching the Wall” takes places tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. There might even be baklava—the real stuff.
Photos courtesy of Helen Zughaib and the Jerusalem Fund Gallery.